“Little Paris”, “One of the newest cities in Poland”, “Heart of Industrial Poland”, “The Holocaust”
After many years trying to find a good deal to this part of Poland, either Krakow or Katowice in order to finally reach Auschwitz, it came when less expected. Over 6 years have passed since our first and only time in Krakow, and ever since, with the city booming more and more tourist-wise talking becoming much more expensive in every way; now it’s cheaper to fly to the Canary Islands than here as an example! That’s the only reason why we kept postponing a return until eventually, finding a good deal. In this occasion, not to Krakow but to nearby sister city Katowice. After all, when thinking in visiting Auschwitz, it does not really matter which of the two cities you fly into as it is literally in the middle of both.
Katowice is a modern city, developed from the 18th century gaining importance and great wealth because of the enormous coal deposits in this area of south Poland. Mines opened everywhere, the industrial revolution boomed here, and so the city grew. Not in the way of a merely industrial city, but in a good way, where the new architecture from the era, the art-nouveau, left a big mark, coupled with some fine examples or art-deco that followed the next decades until World War II and the Nazi occupation took the toll.
While many old buildings were demolished to make way for wide avenues and monuments typical from the Soviet era, half of the city was thankfully spared, notoriously the southern half where the most elegant buildings are, most of them former headquarters of coal mines, industries and banks. The northern part of the city is older and centralised around the old Market Square (Rynek), but do not expect to find a large old town, nor a market square typical from majority of the Polish cities completely surrounded in beautiful architecture. In fact, visiting the entire city will not take you much of the day, therefore plan your time accordingly as there are many places you could visit nearby truly worth it.
For instance, the wonderful city of Krakow is just 80 km east from Katowice, with plenty of buses and trains connecting daily in little over 1 hour. Once in Krakow, you will be glad to find out that the world’s most beautiful salt mines are in the neighbourhood of Wieliczka, a short commuter train ride. Or of course, Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp right in between Katowice and Krakow. In just a weekend is “almost” impossible to visit all these places (see I type it in quotation marks because we managed this), however, if you plan at least 3 full days this will be enough; otherwise, it is always great news to keep in mind a return in the near future.
We managed to enjoy both the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau at no rush on Saturday, and still manage the rest of the day to almost completely visit Krakow. We drove the first thing as the camps opened, and were having lunch by 14.00pm already in Krakow. And to our great luck, the weather could not be better. Sunny and warm to the point of having to remove our jackets several times. So it back in the year 2009 when we came for the first time to Krakow it was super cold, rainy and dark, this time it felt as visiting a completely different city. And not only for Saturday, the same the following day in Katowice.
And while talking about food, I cannot avoid in pretty much copy and paste the same as I use to do with what relates to food for any city I visit in Poland. It’s definitely one of my all time favourite, that’s for sure. Dumplings (pierogi), borsch soup, bigos, the many sausages and lots of cheeses to name a few. Yet although there are plenty of restaurants, watch out for their prices; anywhere around the old town can easily be as much as double if not more than nearby streets for absolutely the same, and it does not even have to mean better quality either. Not because a place looks fancy is always a good choice, majority of times this will end up in being the most expensive choice, and probably the worst value for money and smaller portions.
For more information about Katowice check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites; for Auschwitz, this very complete article in Wikipedia is self explained. Poland’s currency is the Złoty (PLN). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Katowice:
- South of the city This neighbourhood south of the train station contains some of the grandest elegant buildings along an orthogonal street grid urbanism.
-Silesian Parliament Few streets south from the train station, it is the centrepiece building in this part of the city, with squares at each of the sides all of which containing majority of the beautiful buildings in Katowice.
-Bolesław Chrobry Square In the northern side of the Parliament.
-Faculty of Biology The University of Silesia has some of its departments in this area, housed in German style buildings. This faculty is located at the corner of both Bolesław Chrobry with Silesian Parliament Squares.
-Parliament Square At the western side, along its length is occupied by the Faculty of Philology.
-Powstańców Street The parallel street south of the Parliament contains many beautiful buildings, sights on their own.
-The Panel Coal Company Headquarters Right behind the ugly building that is the Upper Silesian Centre of Culture.
-The Procurement Metallurgy Headquarters Across the road from the Coal Company.
-Villa Wojciech Korfantego Also across the road from the Coal Company, it is easy to spot for its Germanistic style architecture.
-Supreme Chamber of Control Across the street along Powstańców, competing in beauty with all the other buildings in this corner.
-Team of Provincial Specialist Clinic At the other side of the road from the Supreme Chamber, built in neo-baroque style.
-The Silesian Library Continuing east along Powstańców Street you will soon reach this place. One of the newest libraries in Europe, and the most modern in Poland.
-John Paul II Square Following the Powstańców Street towards the west.
-Cathedral of Christ the King Of very recent construction, between 1927 to 1955, is the largest cathedral in Poland.
-Bishop’s Palace Right behind the Cathedral, was the residence of the city’s bishops until 1932. Nowadays the Archdiocesan Museum.
-Tadeusza Kościuszki Street At the very west end of Powstańców Street you will reach this major street heading north crossing the entire city south/north. It changes name after the train station, however the orientation keeps the same alignment.
-Church of St. Michael the Archangel Built in 1510 in the village of Syrynia, was moved piece by piece to Katowice’s Kościuszko Park in 1939, making it the oldest structure in the city. Located farther south along Tadeusza Kościuszki Street.
- North of the city The oldest part of the city, very small city centre located around the Market Square.
-Old Railway Station Awaiting redevelopment to safeguard this beautiful structure.
-St. Mary’s Street One of the main streets fully pedestrianised with plenty of shops and cafes and beautiful architecture of the buildings. It runs from the old train station towards the east.
-St. Mary’s Church The end of St. Mary’s Street is market by this neo-Gothic 1861 church. The view of the street and church is one of the most representative from Katowice.
-Warsaw Street Parallel to St. Mary’s, you can walk along it after reaching St. Mary’s Church heading back towards the Market Square.
-Evangelic Church Near the Market Square and among nice buildings at all sides of this church, don’t miss the wooden interiors.
-Silesian Theatre At the corner of Market Square and Warsaw Street, is the largest in the city, built in eclectic style.
-Market Square The Rynek as it’s known in Polish, is unfortunately not as pretty as how is in the majority of other Polish cities. In Katowice there was heavy demolishing of old buildings to make way for the communist style avenues and monuments after 1950’s.
-3rd of May Street The most important shopping thoroughfare in the city, filled with shops, restaurants and bars all the way, and grand architecture in the elegant apartment blocks. It starts at Rynek and heads west towards the Liberty Square.
-Liberty Square This oval shaped square with a garden in the middle is completely surrounded by beautiful buildings.
-Adama-Mickiewicza Street From Liberty Square, if you head north along Sokolska Street you will reach this major thoroughfare heading towards the Rynek.
-Spodek Built in 1971 is the most notorious Soviet style construction, nicknamed the UFO for its shape. It’s the exhibitions and sports centre, located on the main avenue heading north from the Rynek.
-Silesian Museum The largest and most important museum dedicated to the industrial history of this region, housed in a former coal mine. Not far from the Spodek, in the same area that’s been recently revamped.
Places and cities near Katowice:
- Oświęcim Located 36 km east from Katowice, is the location of the sadly world renowned Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous concentration camp during the Nazi occupation. Because of the history behind, and the atrocities that here happened, it is left almost untouched ever since its closure as a museum memory of the world, one of the most visited places in Poland, listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you wish to be on a tour then you must pre-book your tickets as early as possible online (there is a fee for the guided tours), otherwise you are free to enter at any time and do on your own at no cost.
- Krakow Only 80 km east from Katowice is one of the most visited, beautiful and most historic city in Poland. From its castle to the Cathedral, and the impressive medieval Rynek, the Market Square. The city was listed in 1978 one of the world’s first 12 UNESCO sites. You can find a full travel guide here.
- Wieliczka Salt Mine At just 16 km east from Krakow, this is one of the greatest man made wonders of the world. This UNESCO World Heritage Site salt mines were in use since the 13th century until very recent, 2007, and left outstanding works of art made entirely of salt, even the light chandeliers. An unique must-do when visiting this region of Poland. For a travel guide of the mines check the post here.
Katowice Airport is not near the city, but 35 kilometres away. Frequent direct buses head towards the central train station (Katowice Dworze), these can be easily found outside the arrivals terminal. Alternatively, Krakow’s John Paul II International Airport is 68 kilometres east of Katowice, and offers many more international routes. It is connected via bus to Katowice downtown and airport.
Arriving by land (train or bus) is extremely convenient since the location of Katowice in the south of Poland along a major transport hub means you have access to Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary and Ukraine pretty much equidistant with frequent connections through the day and night.
Once in the city, although it is one of the largest in Poland, the city centre in the other hand is very compact and small, with the sights located within walking distance to each other hence no need for taking any public transport to navigate around. In any case, plenty of buses and one of the world’s largest tram network covers every district in the city and beyond.
Being an important base city for tourists parallel to Krakow, for accessing not just this city but the most important major sites as Auschwitz, Birkenau, Krakow or Wieliczka Salt Mine; and its strategic location middle of an European transport hub, there is a great and large selection of hotels, however, I was surprised about the high rates per night. We could not manage to find any good deal nor a good value for money in the city centre, but since we had a rental car with us we were flexible and selected a very nice hotel in Bytom, half way between the airport and Katowice’s downtown.
A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
Our choice was the Boutique Hotels Bytom, in ul. Konstytucji 91, 41905 Bytom. A 3* property (more to the category of a 4*), medium size with fantastic reviews. This is translated in excellent service from everyone we interacted, very kind and friendly, a fantastic quiet and comfortable room, very clean and well cared, and a tasty and consistent breakfast. It comes definitely highly recommended by us.